Since 2015, waves of displacement around the world have led thousands of refugees to Europe’s borders, putting a strain on its asylum system and creating a humanitarian crisis. Consequently, several European states have recycled proposals to offshore their responsibility to protect refugees under international and European law. This article examines the latest attempts by Greece and Denmark to externalize their asylum obligations by shifting responsibility onto third countries. These policies set a dangerous precedent for restricting refugees’ rights to fair asylum procedures and protection, and they should be rescinded.
Last month, a joint ministerial decision by Greece’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry for Migration and Asylum declared that Turkey is a safe country for asylum seekers from five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Somalia. The decision claims to be a response to recent recommendations by the Greek Asylum Service (GAS) and information on the current situation in Turkey, including “living conditions and human rights of certain categories of applicants for international protection.” Asylum seekers from these countries are not considered to be in danger on the basis of their race, religion, citizenship, or political beliefs should they be returned to Turkey. Accordingly, Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, asserted that the decision was “an important step in tackling illegal migration flows and the criminal activity of smuggling networks” and “fully in line with international law and enhances Greece’s legal arsenal against requests by citizens from countries such as Syria…that they have no reason whatsoever to consider Turkey a non-safe country.”
Contrary to the decision and Minister Mitarachi’s statements, however, Turkey is not a safe third country for Syrian refugees. As SJAC has previously reported, Turkey continues to deport refugees to Syria in violation of the non-refoulement principle stipulated in the Refugee Convention to which Turkey is a state party and which prohibits the return of a refugee to the country of persecution. This occurs despite the countless violations people face upon their return to Syria, including detention, torture, property dispossession, and compulsory military service. Neither the EU-Turkey Deal nor Turkey’s reservation to its ratification of the Refugee Convention—a geographical limitation—relieves Turkey of its obligation to the non-refoulement principle. Additionally, Syrians are subjected to widespread and systematic human rights abuses within Turkey, from discriminatory policing to restrictions on movement to limited work opportunities. The fact that many Syrians have been automatically detained upon their initial arrival to Turkey renders it an unsafe country for deportees coming from Greece.
Meanwhile, the Council of the European Union recently discussed the possibility of splitting the 2020 Migration and Asylum Pact into a series of smaller deals in the hopes of garnering more support from the Mediterranean 5 (Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain). One such deal would expand the role of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in asylum registration procedures. As is, EASO provides crucial operational support to the GAS for registration, Dublin procedures, conducting interviews and drafting opinions for decisions formalized by GAS. Despite GAS’s reliance on EASO, the Greek ministerial decision completely ignores the findings of EASO’s latest country of origin report on Syria. The report, which was released prior to the ministerial decision and repeatedly cites SJAC’s documentation and analysis, clearly establishes that returnees to Syria are in an “unwinnable situation.” Yet according to the limited information released by the Greek Ministry of Migration, GAS issued over 1,200 rejections and 3,700 decisions of inadmissibility to Syrians in 2020. Through these decisions, Greece threatens the lives of Syrian refugees by sending them to a third country in which they are unsafe, due to the risk of forced return to Syria.
Denmark has also amplified its efforts to outsource its responsibility for Syrian refugees. In May, it passed an amendment to the Danish Alien Act to establish a refugee reception center for asylum screening in a third country, likely an African state such as Egypt, Ethiopia, or Rwanda. This comes after Denmark revoked hundreds of Syrians’ residency permits, prematurely claiming that Damascus is safe for return. Human rights organizations, including SJAC, have denounced this move, pointing to evidence that Syria is not safe.
This legislation is another attempt by Denmark to shirk its international and European obligations to provide protection for refugees and asylum seekers. The intent of these laws is clear. As noted by Prime Minister Mette Fredericksen, the laws are meant to discourage people from submitting asylum applications. One parliament spokesperson went so far as to say that anyone who applies for asylum in Denmark should expect to be sent back to a country outside of Europe. Yet the new amendment potentially undermines the right to asylum guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions and Article 18 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights by shifting responsibilities for critical aspects of Danish asylum procedures to authorities outside of Denmark. By discouraging asylum applications through threats of deportation and return, as well as by offshoring them to third countries, Denmark violates asylum seekers’ legal right to safe and fair asylum procedures in the EU.
These proposals are by no means innovations in asylum processing. The idea of establishing refugee reception centers outside of the EU in third countries has been proposed multiple times by European states and has repeatedly failed on legal and jurisdictional grounds. In addition, there remain many practical questions yet to be addressed by the Danish government, including who will process asylum applications, which third countries asylum seekers will be sent to, and who bears financial responsibility. Most importantly, Denmark must ensure that the third country is “safe” for asylum seekers, as described above.
Both Greece and Denmark must honor their responsibility to ensure the safety and security of refugees. Moreover, as EU member states, they should heed EU guidance which stipulates that their obligation to uphold refugee rights does not stop at their own geographic borders. In accordance with international and EU guidance and law, Greece and Denmark must reevaluate their policies and practices that risk the lives of refugees by sending them to third countries where their access to legitimate asylum procedures are insufficient and where individuals with bona fide asylum claims could be forcibly returned to Syria. By flouting their obligations, both countries blatantly undermine the lives of refugees, as well as the validity of human rights norms. Moreover, shifting responsibility to third states puts the burden of proof on Syrian refugees to show that they will be forcibly returned to Syria where they risk being persecuted. This process alone risks the re-traumatization of refugees who fled to Europe for safety.